“The Normal Heart” Cast & Ryan Murphy Talk The Important “Love Story”

The Normal Heart TCA panel
Ryan Murphy (far left) and the cast of HBO’s The Normal Heart

Matt Bomer told us last week how he shed 40 pounds to show the devastation of the AIDS epidemic on his character, Felix Turner, in the upcoming film adaptation of The Normal Heart. And with a cast including out actors Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello and Jonathan Groff as well as marquee names like Julia Roberts, Taylor Kitsch and Mark Ruffalo, there was much to talk regarding the filming of Larry Kramer’s play at last week’s Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour.

Fans of Kramer’s play will undoubtedly want to know how faithful was director Ryan Murphy to the original work? “I think it’s similar to the play and very different,” Murphy offered. “I worked with Larry on the script for, I think, three years, so I believe that we sort of broke it out. I would say that there’s probably 40 to 45 percent new material in the movie, and that’s something that he worked really hard on making a really epic story.”

Taking place during the time period of 1981-1984, Murphy also shared that viewers will recognize many of the settings we’ll see in the film since they are still prominent locales today. “The first ten minutes of the movie, for example, is all shot on location at Fire Island at the places where the guys really went, the parties they really went to.”

Ruffalo, in the key role of Ned Weeks, said that he was well aware of Larry Kramer early in his years as an acting student, and his eyes were already open to the playwright and his activism. “I was a young actor in the Drama department and started seeing kids walking with Act Up buttons on,” the actor said. “I probably, not commonly, got an education as a straight young man early on, but I did spend quite a bit of time with him and came to really love him. I’ve spent hours and hours and hours with him begging him to tell me stories about what they went through and about this time.”

Mark RuffaloMark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks in The Normal Heart (Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Asked about Kramer’s notorious “abrasiveness,” Ruffalo, who also helped get the film made as an Executive Producer, replied, “I didn’t really experience that with him…he’s sick now, and he’s older [and] he was opening the door to me as an actor to share his life with me so I wasn’t a political opposition to him, you know, so that was taken out of the conversation…I actually tried to go directly to him as much as I possibly could and honor him and honor his complexity and his journey and his passion and his commitment to this movement which is what I deem completely heroic.”

For Ruffalo, however, this was not just another acting job. “Ryan and I sort of set out on a journey together and when he came to me to do it he asked me to be his partner on it,” he explained. “He was developing the script, was running ideas by me and so on and so forth. We worked together in the casting. I was lucky enough to have him bring me along on this journey as a creative partner but also as a collaborator and as an amazing leader, and I feel like we went a long distance to get to this place today.”

Even though many of the actors were quite young during the time period of the film, that doesn’t mean Kramer’s play didn’t have an impact on them. Parsons, who plays Tommy Boatwright in the film (as he did in the 2011 Broadway production), said he remembered the early reports on the disease. “I remember frightening 20/20 [reports] when I was like 10 and 11,” he said, but he said reading the play “was a real education for me. What’s funny is the more you delve into this, as much as it’s very specific to the topic, the AIDS crisis, the humanity that overreaches all of it is what really kind of hurts your heart at the end of it. It feels like something horrible that happened that has happened before in different ways, and it feels like humans being humans, it may happen again and maybe that’s why a story like this is so important to tell in the hope that maybe that can be course corrected and that it not happen again.”

Mark Ruffalo, Taylor KitschNed has a moment with Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch). (Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO)

Taylor Kitsch, who plays Bruce Niles, shared that he was born in 1981 and hadn’t read the work until he got involved in the film project. “The script was in front of me and really understanding what was going on and in meeting with Murphy and pitching myself for the gig, that’s when you really delve into it and be honest with it and see what it’s all about. And not just AIDS or the epidemic…it’s a love story, and it’s how people deal with fear of the unknown, and that’s really what I focused on more than anything.”

For Murphy, he was affected much more directly by those early days. “I lost a lot of friends to AIDS,” he said, “and I can remember one of my best friends at the time died in the mid-’90s.  He was fired.  His parents ostracized him and he was so stigmatized by [the disease] that even on his deathbed he would not admit that that’s what he was dying of.”

The Normal Heart TCA Q&A sessionOf course, any project examining that period has to include how the government reacted or, rather, didn’t react, to what was happening in the world when the crisis hit. “At the end of the movie we talk about President Reagan and his legacy, and Ed Koch and his legacy, and nobody was really doing anything,” Murphy said. “And as a result, history shows you that something that probably could have become much less tragic ballooned into a worldwide epidemic.”

With any gay-centric production, the question of whether you cast gay or straight actors regularly comes up and Murphy offered his thoughts by saying, “I don’t think of actors as gay or straight. I think of them as great actors, and I never went after anybody based on their sexuality. I went after what I thought would be the best actor for the part and the people that I thought would bring the most commitment and nuance to it.”

That said, he cited Bomer and Parsons for being out actors who are a part of the production. “I do feel like the world is changing. If you look at Matt, if you look at Jim, I think that it’s a very different ball game that we’re in, and it was such a privilege for me to work on it,” Murphy said. “I felt very honored that Larry would entrust me with it. I think he got that I would not stop until it was made and it was his lifelong dream…I also worked with Larry very closely on the casting and, of course, with Mark and with Julia and as a collective really went after people that we thought would just be incredibly committed in the roles. And that’s what we got.”

Asked whether he’s surprised about being an out actor with a thriving career, Parsons replied, “No, I don’t. It’s not that I didn’t think about it going into this career, but if I’m thinking about it in those terms, I guess I was really only ever anxious about the moment that the conversation would happen and, you know, is this still a deal? It’s a deal. It’s a deal. And then it happened, and the conversation, you know, it was out there as it was, and it was like, well, I mean, it’s a deal like anything else, but it was no big deal. And that was a relief, you know, because it was no big deal for me obviously, but I don’t know. I didn’t think…it’s like Ryan said, you know, not to be general or glib about it, but you don’t think of yourself…like, I don’t bring gay qualities or straight qualities to a role. I just, whatever is going on I deal with it in whatever situation it is as an actor.” (Bomer’s reply was featured in our post last week)

Believe it or not, 20 years has passed since HBO aired And The Band Played On, another film that looked at this era. (The film adaptation of Randy Shilts’ book premiered September 11, 1993) Murphy talked about the importance of that film not only in the subject matter but also the caliber of actors who took part. “That was a very important movie back then,” he said. “That was a time when a lot of people would not lend their name or their talent or any activity to the cause and I remember people like Richard Gere stepping up and Lily Tomlin, and I think that was groundbreaking at the time.”

However, Murphy said he sees the earlier film as a “scientific film” whereas The Normal Heart film is “a love story between Mark and Julia. It’s a love story between friends as Taylor and Mark and then there’s Matt and Mark, Jim and Mark, and Alfred Molina plays Mark’s brother…we’re looking at an epidemic as seen through a love story. I think that’s the big difference.”

The Normal Heart is set to air in May on HBO.